After wanting to do it for many years, and meticulously re-reading DM of the Rings, I DMed a tabletop RPG session for the first time last week, in a setting of my own invention. I had all kinds of concerns going into it (Will it be fun? Is the custom setting over-ambitious? Do I know enough of the mechanics?) but everything went very smoothly. I say smoothly on the meta-level – there was lots of in-game shenanigans that led to a very good time for all involved.
(If you were a player in that session, no worries, there be no spoilers if you read ahead)
I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons a few times before with different groups, no more than three sessions with the same group. Like anyone vaguely aware of nerd culture, I know all about D&D tropes. I have been to D&D themed burlesque shows. I have friends who run a recurring D&D themed improv show. The core ideas of D&D are infused throughout nerd culture.
I am sure there are nice taxonomies of player behaviour and desires out there, but what specifically excites me about D&D is collaborative storytelling. In my mind, the rules or mechanics of the game exist so that the DM and the players can resolve conflicts when trying to tell the story. I’ve been very fortunate, I think, in that most of the people I’ve ever tabletop RPG’d with have been theatre or other creative folk, and creating an interesting story has always been the primary goal. I’m not trying to knock other play styles at all, of course, and trying to power-game within any rule system does have a certain maniacal appeal. I think one of the worst experiences I have had while gaming is an argument between two math PhDs on the rules governing hiding behind cover – the story did advance, eventually.
I think of D&D as a collaborative storytelling system, but I also love to think of it as a problem-solving system, independent of the mechanics of a particular RPG system. The stories of how players and DMs accomplish things are super-interesting. I like the idea that a “good” solution in an RPG setting “makes sense”, even though it may be bizarre, or impossible in this universe. Here are a few of my favourite examples of outcomes in tabletop RPGs:
- Head of Vecna
- Sir Bearington
- Portal ring to the Fey World
- Half-Orc/Dwarf Relations
The DM sets up the rules of the world, and the players interact with it. I find some “how to” DM manuals stress that you give your players an “epic, heroic” adventure. This bothers me to some extent. I feel like any of the list of above are fun experiences, though not necessarily “epic” or “heroic” in the classical Beowulf sense. Other writing stresses giving the players the feeling that they are constantly on the edge of failure – perhaps this is an allusion to “Flow”. I don’t like that either – if players are doing poorly or well they should know, and they should be able to figure out why (even if they aren’t told immediately). I feel like something is wrong if the degree of fun of an experience relies on a constant state of risk.
One overriding trope that bothers me in many D&D-like scenarios is when creatures fight to the death, or “evil” as a motivation. “Evil” is fairly absurd and frankly boring as a motivation. This opinion is partially motivated by the Tome of Awesome (I’ve only read a bit, but it is really great). The real world is full of interesting stories which do not entirely rely on beings that are compelled to do evil or have death wishes. When players encounter the Big Bad which is motivated not by evil, but by something more morally ambiguous, will they have to deal with that moral quandry, and will the game cease to be fun and become more like real life? I don’t know. There is a sentiment in a lot of games writing that the “point” is escapism. It might just be my personality, that I take my gaming very seriously. Nothing prevents the gamers from doing very absurd things and having the universe react “naturalistically” to them. This is a great source of fun in simulation sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim (I leave out Saint’s Row because that universe embraces absurdity a little too much to be considered naturalistic).
I recruited four willing
victims players for the session. Two of them had played D&D a few times before, and the other two were aware of it through nerd culture. We used the d20 Modern Core Rulebook. I wanted to build a custom world, but I didn’t want to build something and then force my players to fit themselves into it. I gave them:
“It is 2013 on an Earth similar to own with modern technology, but with minor differences. For the session, you will be sent on a mission to do something by some agency.”
I wanted to elicit the kind of characters that they would want to play, and then build my world around that. This happened over email over about a month, a little tentatively to see who would lay the first creative stone that the others would build around. I kept my designs of the game world pretty secretive until two of the players had solid ideas of who they wanted to play. This was a pretty tense process, for me at least. How much should I reveal? Will I smother their creativity? One player was much more gung-ho than others in building his character, and I gave him a friendly warning that “just because you put more attention into your character before the session, doesn’t mean I’ll give you more attention than the others during the campaign.” He understood, and after talking I was relieved to discover that he found the character building fun in of itself, independent of how much it would come up. He had a huge backstory document he composed as motivation. I actually really liked this – a player creating a backstory to motivate his character’s reactions, but not requiring the DM or the other players to read or understand it.
I had ideas of what I wanted to do bouncing around in my head quite a while, short form notes in raw text files and scattered sketches. I finally wrote up an 8-page, 1000 word pdf in the format of a mission dossier in 14-point typewriter font with a large image on nearly every page:
The adventurers were a team hired by CSIS to go to a floating city of boats in the South China Sea to investigate the whereabouts of a missing Canadian professor.
I wanted to ground this in reality, make it seem plausible. The floating city was inspired by Rife’s Raft in the middle of the Pacific in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and the Canadian professor was an actual person that I pretended went missing (no one I know personally, you’re safe). I think the players only skimmed this doc, but that would be enough to get the sense of the world and build their characters.
I let them know by email the time the session would start at my home, but that I would be around for a couple hours before in case they wanted to stop by and sort out their characters.
Once we were ready, I entered DM mode and told them they and their luggage were aboard a helicopter enroute to a cruise ship where the adventure would begin. I got everyone to introduce themselves and their characters, not in character, but encouraged themselves to describe their appearance and general behaviour. I didn’t attempt to “act” any NPC seriously with a voice or posture – I didn’t want my players to feel they were obligated to do it to play along. I liked to think of the GM and the players as the third-person narrators describing the events, not the literal characters doing things.
I’m not going to re-count the entire events of the session. There were “two and a half” combat encounters, and lots of fun running around and interacting the world. My major worry would be that the fiction of the world would not be fleshed-out enough, but it turns out under-defining it was a good idea. I knew the motivation for aspects of the world to exist (i.e. why are all these boats in the middle of the ocean?) but I didn’t have a description ready for each and every single boat.
* There is a nervous phase at the beginning, especially for new players, were you’re sizing up the world and the DM to see what you can do. I put the players in a hotel room and then set them free, letting them know they had dinner reservations in 5 hours. They started using checks on everything, tearing apart drawers and even the carpet in the hall. Especially for the new players, realizing that you can do anything takes a bit of a leap. I was especially careful to not show impatience if players were doing something that wasn’t going to go anywhere – I wanted them to find that out from the world, not from me.
* If play is stalling or there’s a low moment, go around asking each player what they’re doing. This led to lots of fun descriptions and roleplay, such as “I am sitting at the bar, sipping scotch, brooding”.
* Reminding players when they forget details is fun. I had a monster that got away from an encounter that came back later. In cases like this, I feel like I’m playing “against” the players, trying to outsmart them in my usual helpful DM role. Super-fun.
* It’s easy to re-jigger encounters to when players will encounter them, without seeming like you’re railroading. I had 4 encounters I readied for this session and checked so that they matched the players’ difficulty level. We got to two of them, and a half-encounter that I didn’t anticipate but was easy to figure out in the moment. One of the encounters didn’t occur when I expected, but made sense due to actions of the players, so I just populated all the prepared NPCs in that new context.
* “Accidental” inventions are awesome. In the middle of play, I realized that players had to have a way to get directions in the middle of this floating boat city, so I had them find a computer that had the ability to track phone locations. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but they had previously captured a phone carried by an underling that was used to correspond to someone higher up. In future sessions, the adventurers can use that to find the location of the boss. There’s no way I’m going to put up an invisible wall to prevent that, and I have to figure out how to make it make sense.
* Interesting battle mechanics arose in the moment. Any description of a D&D dungeon is full of compelling traps and situational events that aren’t part of the core rules. However, all my encounters were in “realistic” places (similar to the level design of excellent digital games like Deus Ex) and the real environments inspired interesting mechanics, such as knocking tables around or pushing people out windows, running through a crowd that is trying to run the opposite way, or trying to shoot someone flying overhead at night time.
* Players are really creative and have lots of fun shooting the shit among themselves – the burden of inventing stuff doesn’t always fall to the DM. Sometimes I could just relax and the characters would banter amongst themselves. It was really nice to see them come alive.
* Comedy arises naturally. I kept a serious tone, but allowed humorous situations to happen. At one point, two speed boats were attached by a rope and one speedboat full of NPCs gunned their engine, trying to escape. All the PCs succeeded a Balance check and all of the NPCs fell over. However, when PCs tried to jump over into the NPC boat, two of them failed jump checks and immediately fell into the water. I managed to keep a mostly serious tone, but the players were laughing their asses off.
I look forward to DMing again soon.